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September 11, 1999


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Deepa Mehta Took A Bold Step Casting Me: Rahul Khanna

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Aseem Chhabra in New York

Rahul Khanna Rahul Khanna arrives for an interview dressed in blue jeans and an olive green tee shirt. The tee shirt has a drawing of the Taj Mahal, with a tag line at the bottom, 'Man's greatest erection for a woman'. It's a cloudy and humid afternoon in Manhattan and Khanna walks with a folded umbrella in the back pocket of his jeans.

The 27-year-old former MTV Asia VJ, and a teen heart throb, may have a huge following in India, but in New York he can walk the streets without attracting any attention. We meet in a cafe in New York's theater district, just a few blocks away from his apartment.

Khanna, whose first film, Earth, opened worldwide on Friday, has lived in New York on and off for the past several years. He first came here in 1992 to join the Lee Strasburg Theater Institute. A year later he joined the School of Visual Arts, also located in Manhattan. Two years into SVA, where he had finished the acting program, he got a chance to audition in New York for MTV Asia.

The job eventually took him to Singapore, but now for the past year Khanna has been in New York, having recently acted in the off-Broadway production of Ayub Khan-Din's autobiographical play -- East is East.

In East is East, Khanna played Tariq Khan, the 21-year old son of an abusive working class Pakistani father and a British mother. Set in 1971, Tariq and his other siblings are shown as preferring to be out dancing and hanging out with girls than practising the "traditional" Pakistani way of life.

"I had never done theater before and I kept saying, 'Oh God, can I do this'," Khanna says, adding that his biggest concern was learning to speak in the Manchester accent. "It all worked out well. It was such a good play and I loved the people I was working with."

During the play, Khanna bonded strongly with five other South Asian actors, who play his on-stage siblings. "We became such a tight family and till today we are constantly calling each other up and hanging out together," he says.

"When you spend eight hours a day during the rehearsals and then, every evening, go through such a range of emotions, you can't help but connect with your co-stars."

The play, which was on for nearly three months, exhausted Khanna. "Doing eight shows a week with intense emotions is no joke," he says.

Khanna is excited about Earth, Deepa Mehta's saga about Partition based on Bapsi Sidhwa's novel, Cracking India. In the film, he plays Hasan, a masseur and a voice of reason in the midst of madness and hatred.

"It has taken so long for the release," he says. "Finally the film will be shown worldwide."

Nandita Das and Rahul Khanna in 1947 Earth He describes his involvement in Earth as a series of coincidences. A couple of year ago a friend of his mother told him he should consider doing a film with Mehta, who had just completed Fire. At that time Khanna had not even heard of Mehta. A few months later he got a chance to see Fire at the Singapore Film Festival.

"I loved the film and I remember saying to myself, 'that's the kind of sensibility I should be associated with,' " he says.

Then a few months later Mehta's casting director Uma da Cunha approached Khanna with the script of Earth..

The coincidences do not end here, Khanna says. He soon discovered the role of the little Parsi girl in the film, Lenny, was to be played by Maia Sethna, whose mother was a friend. In addition, another friend of Khanna, Kitu Gidwani, had been cast to play Sethna's on-screen mother. Finally, he says, he discovered one of Sidhwa's sons lived in an apartment in the same building where Khanna grew up with his actor father Vinod Khanna and mother, former model Gitanjali Taleyarkhan.

Mehta "took a very brave decision to cast me in her film, because I had never acted before, professionally," he says (Earth was shot in the winter of 1998).

"There was a lot of pressure, may be self-created pressure, for me," he says. "It was my first film and it wasn't a little student film. Also from being an MTV VJ, which is so contemporary, so much at the moment, I had to go back into time and become a working class masseur."

To practice for his role, Khanna decided to cut himself off from the modern world. He did not watch any television or read current books or magazines. He especially made an effort not to have any contact with his MTV life.

"Also, Delhi lent itself very beautifully to my preparation as a character, just because it is a historical city," he adds. "I never liked Delhi before. But during the filming I grew very fond of it."

While he considers working on the film as rewarding, he also calls it "a harrowing experience".

"We all lived through the time, we all lived through Partition during the film," he says.

Working on the film strengthened his views against violence, especially violence as a means to an end.

"I believe strongly that violence is for children and animals," he says.

"We have evolved beyond that. We have centuries of history to prove that violence does not achieve anything. But obviously we have not learnt from it."

Currently Khanna is exploring several projects, including scripts written by young film-makers in the US and in India. He is willing to consider acting in Hindi commercial films.

"It is a very lucrative business and great form of art," he says. However, he is not excited by any of the projects that have come his way. Neither is he willing to have his father or younger brother, actor Akshaye Khanna, launch a film for him.

"They have been very supportive of everything I have done," he says. "Why should they have to bankroll a film for me?"

So how does Khanna spend his days in New York?

"You know what's great about being an actor?" he asks. "You never have the same day, two days in a row. I could have a day when all I do is stay at home and read scripts. Or I could have a day when I am out meeting casting agents and auditioning. Then I can have a free day. I just go to the gym, do errands, clean my apartment and do laundry."

' To recreate a period piece in Delhi was a heroic task'

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